Earlier on in the year, I had spent one of the best three-day holidays I have ever had, in Lisbon, Portugal. See my post “Lisbon with Liz” (shameless plug). While it was probably the excellent company I was keeping at the time, Portugal managed to secure a very special place in my heart after that trip. So while I was very sad to say ‘Doei’ to Amsterdam, I was so excited to once again say ‘Olá’ to Portugal! Additionally, I was spending a whole ten days around the country this time. Porto – Coimbra – Lisbon – Lagos. Living the dream!
It started well – a two hour delay in our flight to Porto. But even arriving late couldn’t dampen my spirits. I was in Portugal! As dawn broke the next day we decided to treat ourselves to a beach day – recharge the batteries and what not, because our lives are so exhausting (yea right!).
Walking down to the city centre from our Airbnb, it was weird. I felt so incredibly comfortable with where I was. I have never visited Porto before, but obviously it has it’s similarities to Lisbon. The familiarity with the architecture, shops and people almost felt like a home away from home! I am quite sure a stupid smile didn’t leave my face the entire time.
Except maybe when we got to São Bento train station to head to Espinhol. Then, my mouth was hanging wide open. With walls covered in Azulejo (painted, tin-glazed, ceramic tile work – usually blue in colour), the train station was a museum in itself. So breathtakingly beautiful. Then, with Percy Sledge serenading me through my iPod, I lost myself in the journey out to the beach. I highly recommend this trip as the views from the cliffs down to Porto’s Douro river, then along the coast, were incredible.
While in Porto, we also decided to splash out and buy open-top bus tour tickets. I say ‘splash out,’ but it was actually very cheap – a two day pass with two different tour routes, a river cruise and a Port wine tasting tour, for 17 euro each? VFM! The river cruise ‘seven bridge tour’ was alright – maybe even a bit boring? Fantastic views from the river, but I have to admit my favourite bit was walking around where the boats leave from. Markets and restaurants line the Douro River Cruise Terminal area and sitting down to a cold Superbock, on a ledge cut into a cliff, overlooking the river and watching all the boat activity, cannot be beaten.
Another highlight in Porto has to be the Port wine tours. While the tour package included a brief but very interesting tour and tasting, if you venture behind the ‘tourist attractions’ and up into the hills, there are loads of other Port tastings you can dabble in, for very reasonable prices too.
I had a real ‘wow’ moment during our tour too. In March I went to Dublin for the weekend (see “A Weekend In Dublinia” – boom! Plug #2). There, we went on a Jamesons Whiskey tour and learned that many of the barrels they used came from Port wineries. Then, on our tour we saw the barrels that were going to be sent to Dublin for the whiskey! (That kind of thing thrills me. Is that sad?)
Finally, a real stand out memory for me will always be on Herois de Franca. On this particular street (which does seem a little in the middle of nowhere) restaurants set up small marquees on the street with dining areas, then huge charcoal barbeques beside each. Now on these BBQ’s is some of the most delicious seafood I have ever seen, smelled or eaten. We visited a place called Tito 2 (and yes, there is a Tito 1).
Of course I had to order a traditional dish, so started with a vegetable soup, followed by char-grilled sardines. We also ordered BBQ’d squid and a bowl of garlic potatoes and salad. The sardines, I think, are not for everyone. They are fiddly. Lots of bones. Unfortunately, I had acquired a wee bit of Dutch courage from the Port tasting and my first bite was right into the whole fish – head and all – assuming it would be similar to white bait. So very, very wrong. Still! After a bit of delicate effort sorting flesh from bone, the meat is delicious. The squid? Hands down best I’ve ever had. So simply cooked. A bit of oil and salt on the BBQ. But cooked to absolute perfection. Accompanied by a bottle of Portuguese red, and I think this is one of the best meals I have ever had – all for 23 euros…seriously.
Porto is incredibly cheap. We we found a cafe right in the centre of the city and had our breakfast there every day. Two savoury pastries, a sweet and two coffees for 3 euro total. It has everything; citylife, accessible beaches, culture and it is all so affordable. Don’t be afraid to venture into the city centre and around the touristy spots! Usually we avoid these like the plague, but in Porto there is no need.
We knew we wanted to get to Lisbon, but noticed a place called Coimbra on the map which could break up the bus journey, so booked a night there after Porto.
To be honest, it isn’t somewhere I would recommend. A university town, Coimbra was once the capital of Portugal, so we thought it would be quite big – maybe similar to Porto? While it was a very beautiful city, there just wasn’t a lot going on. And it was very expensive compared to Porto.
The highlight here was just walking around the different streets and seeing where university students had made their mark in the city. At one point we stumbled upon a wall covered in an array of what seemed completely random objects such as a road cone, a bicycle and a body-board.
I could almost hear it calling me… Lisbon was next. I was really excited to get back there as my boyfriend had only passed through during a previous adventure, and I wanted to show him all that is amazing with this place.
So arriving in the afternoon, to do this I demanded we had dinner in Bairro Alto and I was determined to find the same restaurant that Liz and I had dined in which served great food at a decent price.
This proved difficult. Enchantment pours from every door in Bairro Alto. There is so much to chose from – not to mention it is laid out like the labyrinth. But, somehow, we found it. I knew it was the one because of the random posters of David Guetta as its decor artwork.
It is called Sudoeste and the food was amazing. We managed to get a table outside in the idyllic Portuguese street and ordered grilled octopus and potatoes, and the Chef’s special spinach risotto. I really highly recommended this place if you want the great atmosphere of the Bairro Alto for a decent price.
Our second day saw us venture to the picturesque town of Sintra – a somewhat suburb of Lisbon with loads of 19th-century Romantic architectural monuments. Basically, lots of fairytale-like castles and palaces! Unfortunately for us budget backpackers, we found it quite expensive. Understandably, it is an extremely touristic town, but the tickets to see the different monuments were pretty pricey! However, the walks through the gardens and up to the views were just magnificent.
While I love Lisbon, I did find it a lot more touristy than I remembered last time – and I went in peak season! This time, I think due to seeing other parts of Portugal, I found it slightly expensive and with only so much to do. I do believe Porto knocked it off it’s “Number One spot in Portugal” ranking for me!
I’ll be the first to admit, I had my hesitations about Lagos. It is apparently known for its partying ways, and I could only picture we were heading to somewhere with the scars of ‘all-inclusiveness.’
So as our final Portuguese coach trip drew to a close, we arrived with my expectations at an all time low. Totally and completely unjustified. Lagos is paradise.
After our previously busy schedule checking out cities, this seaside resort town was just what we needed. Quaint restaurants and shops, a relaxed ambiance and beaches! The beaches were incredible! The best beaches were situated in coves along the coast off the road Avenida dos Descobrimentos. With their golden sand and clear, baby-blue water, looking down at the bays was the most inviting sight.
However, do not be fooled. The water is positively freezing. The good old Atlantic ocean lives up to its reputation here and when swimming, you have one of two options: jump in and jump out, eliminating the need to swim again for at around 20 minutes. Or, stay in until your body is so completely numb that you don’t feel the cold any more, and go venturing! I opted for the latter. While it meant lying in 40 degree heat afterwards, shivering for around and hour, it also allowed me to swim out, through caves and around the coast to look back on the coves. So worth it.
You can also walk along the cliffs, stopping in awe of the coves and rock formations of the coast. While it was incredibly hot, I highly recommend this walk. Take your cozzies (togs/bathing costumes/swimmers) though! You will be stopping for dips along the way. And don’t worry, there is a great place at the lighthouse for a half-way pitstop (I recommend a cold Superbock).
We were also lucky enough to meet a fantastic couple on a similar adventure to us. They told us about a small town called Sao Jao, just outside of Lagos, with a fantastic restaurant which apparently serves the best steaks in all of Portugal. Jumping on the number 6 bus, you can reach the town within 40 minutes.
We met Alice and Guy at a restaurant called Restaurante Taberna D’Maria. It was kind of how I imagined a small, non-tourist Portuguese town would be. It seemed like everyone was at this one place for dinner. Two storeys high, it had a quaint outside dining area, a bar down below and a beautifully traditional eating area upstairs.
We started our meals with flaming chorizo sausage – quite literally on fire. In a bowl of oil, a raw chorizo sausage is placed in front of you, lit on fire, then you slowly cook it to your desired charcoaled-ness. Then for our mains, of course we had the famous steaks, which were accompanied by scalloped potatoes and a white sauce.
Alice and Guy were not wrong – the steaks were amazing. Coming from New Zealand, we are spoiled when it comes to quality cow, and were left thoroughly disappointed by our beefy experiences in the UK. The steak at Restaurante Taberna D’Maria restored my faith in paying that little bit extra for a steak, without being disappointed.
The evening was so incredibly memorable. It felt like we had been welcomed into a family! Everyone knew everyone and after our meals, the owner ran home, brought back some ‘homebrew spirit’ and gave us all three (or four?) shots each.
As the party raged on in Lagos while we were sleeping like boring people, we were never confronted with this scene. I know it is there if you want it, but if you simply want a chilled out, beach holiday (even with the family!) Lagos is ideal.
Tips for visiting Portugal
In conclusion, I thought I might put together a couple of tips which may (or may not) help anyone thinking of visiting the places mentioned above.
1. Use the coaches
Each and every 3-4 hour bus ride we took around Portugal were fantastic. The busses are quality. All equipped with WiFi, Air Conditioning and were surprisingly comfortable. But be sure to book as early as possible as prices will increase closer to departure date.
2. Visit Porto
If you are unsure where to visit, or which city to visit, I can’t recommend Porto highly enough. It has everything you would want (or should want) to see. Culture, history, sunshine, beaches, amazing food. And best of all it is cheap!
3. Learn a little lingo
I am pretty sure this applies to any country whose first language isn’t English, but we found by learning just a few simple words in Portuguese – Hello, thank you, please, one, two…beer – we were treated a lot more warmly. We often aroused laughter from people but at least we were trying, rather than the horrible expectations many tourists have for English to be known everywhere.
Tipping in Portugal is expected. Service charges are not added to the bills and while servers might earn a wage, you can imagine it isn’t a lot. Chuck 10% extra in there and you’ll be fine!
While I will probably be finishing most posts like this, I was truly sad to be leaving Portugal. The culture, food, wine and most importantly, the people, really made our time there unforgettably special. However, our next stop, Spain was calling… stay tuned!